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The Hill Meets The Valley

In what was likely the most high-profile CEO congressional hearing in decades, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and Founder of Facebook, sat in the hot seat before multiple committees on Capitol Hill this week. The public response to the hearings varied greatly with some feeling Mr. Zuckerberg suffered under the scrutiny of the United States Congress while others claimed it consisted of easy “softball questions”. No matter how you felt about the content of the testimonies, everyone can agree that it was probably the most high-profile congressional hearing since Bill Gates defended Microsoft against monopoly-status in the ‘90s.


Why are these hearings so captivating to Americans and people all around the globe? Part of the reason is that it parallels the excitement we feel while watching a battle between two superheroes - Batman vs. Superman, Thor vs. Hulk, Zuckerberg vs. Congress. The ultimate power of the government versus the ultimate power of tech (touching basically everything in our lives now) in a one-on-one showdown.


Zuckerberg, representing Silicon Valley and the West Coast’s relaxed t-shirt and jeans culture, dresses in a suit and tie (opposite of a Clark Kent move) and flies across the country. He faces the United States Congress, representing the East Coast’s buttoned-up, traditional culture. The contrast between players could not be more pronounced. One can imagine the spectacle if roles were reversed and the founders of Google, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, and Mark Zuckerberg all put a senator on the hot seat and publicly went through all of their personal internet data. Fun superhero analogies aside, the striking contrast of the players is just an added theatrical bonus to the real importance of the hearings. The true importance lies in what has been a fundamental question in American democracy since its very founding.


Freedom and liberty. Two words that perhaps are the most foundational to all of the founding documents of the United States of America. From “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence to “Secure the blessings of liberty” in the Constitution.


If people were angels, then no problem - our unbounded liberty would truly lead to “liberty and justice for all.” Almost every law in American history traces back to this: Where does one’s right to freedom and liberty infringe or destroy another’s same right? Where does one’s freedom to play loud music in the private property of their yard, infringe on the liberty of their next door neighbor’s sleep? In a more difficult case, where does one’s freedom of speech violate other’s freedom of life and the pursuit of happiness?


In the case of Mr. Zuckerberg, where does one’s freedom to create a private business that is used by 2 billion monthly users infringe on a person’s right to privacy - who they are calling, where they are walking, who they are talking to, etc? When does this same private businesses’ freedom to operate as they see fit breach on a society’s freedom of open and fair elections and non-destructive political discourse? Does the unregulated sharing of information (good or bad, true or false) infringe on another’s freedom to make reasonable decisions? Are we comfortable with more government involvement with what was supposed to be our ultimate freedom of information – the Internet – in the name of protecting our private data? There are so many unanswered questions.


These types of questions are more complex than they used to be as today we are dealing with people's’ massive amounts of personal data. Whose data is it? Is it the company whose website you are using? Is it yours? Who owns the data and what can they do with it? No matter whose it is, one thing is certain - you are being watched.


The truth is, and this is what many Americans still do not realize, is that social media sites are not the only places where your data is being tracked and collected. The truth is that, in increasingly more cases, everywhere you visit on the Internet (and in real life), you are being followed and tracked. Your data is being monitored from everywhere, not just sites where you “log-in”. Now, with phones in our pockets, it is not just where you virtually travel on the Internet; it is also your locations and actions in the real-world that are being legally tracked almost all of the time. Your internet searches, websites viewed, restaurants visited, people called, conversations had - all of this is being monitored by websites, apps, and data, whether or not you are actually “logging-in” on purpose. To sum up, it does not matter if you are ‘logged-in’ to a particular site or not; you are being tracked everywhere you go.


A little freaked-out? More like a lot.


While the government tries to sort out what steps will be taken (if any) to protect private citizen data, there are private entities that are making big moves to make us all more secure. Last year, venture capital dollars related to cybersecurity doubled from $3.8 billion in 2016 to $7.6 billion in 2017 according to CB Insights. According to the same report, 69% of all cybersecurity deals are happening in the United States. While 2017 spending on cybersecurity was an estimated $83.5 billion dollars, this number is expected to increase to $119.9 billion in 2021 from an October report by IDC.


Cybersecurity tends to focus on protecting existing data, but some people-focused companies are making sure websites never get access to your data at all. According to Track-Off, a Baltimore-based cyber-privacy company, CEO & Co-Founder, Chandler Givens says, “There is more of an awareness of the fact that everytime that you are online, information is being collected, and there are real consequences to that kind of large-scale data collection.” Track-Off has created services that are designed to make you anonymous on the internet. Track-Off’s mission is to make you invisible, so social media sites, search engines, and basically every website out there now can no longer track you. The services are designed to protect you from massive data collection, potential hackers, and identity theft. Givens says, “This isn’t just creepy. There are real-world ramifications for this massive online data-collecting… This data can be used and sold-off to make inferences about your financial situation and can influence your ability to get a loan or to influence your opinions in an election.


Our devices (phones, laptops, etc) and therefore potentially everyone know more about us than we might even know about ourselves. With the rise of artificial intelligence that understands and uses our data in unimagined ways, a sci-fi writer’s (or Black Mirror producer) imagination is no longer the place where privacy and technology are at a major crossroads we are living in science fiction. We live in the future.


In an ideal world, people would only share real news and only informative and civil information/discourse would rise to the top of news feeds. In an ideal world, people’s political conversations would be done with mutual respect, and the world being more connected would not have unintended costs that push millions (billions?) of people down. In an ideal world, data-tracking would not infringe on our personal freedoms and privacy or be used maliciously, but the data would only be used to solve global medical problems, help us figure out our dream vacations, or the best place for us to eat tonight. Here is the obvious catch We do not live in an ideal world. Is the future of our personal cyber-privacy new government regulations, private entities like Track-Off, a combination of both? Who knows who, what, or when major actions will be taken to protect us? In the meantime, let’s hope we end up on the side of angels.

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